So many ideas, so little time. I'll start this and see if it goes as fast as I want it to. If not, I'll also start another one that's digging at me. Plus I already have one in the works. The problem is, if I don't at least start them, I might forget the idea that started these trains of thought.

Disclaimers. Not mine. No money. Please, don't sue.

Team Building


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"It's the mayor's idea. He thinks we can all just close up shop and take off for the wilds of the woods for a week without any consequences. The chief is livid. Unfortunately, it didn't help." Simon was holding the weekly meeting in his office. It was a little crowded, but at least it was private.

"So, where are you going and what are you going to be doing?" Blair Sandburg, Anthropology Grad Student/Observer/Guide asked, curious. He wasn't a cop, so he wasn't included in things like team building. He was only allowed in the weekly meetings because of his relationship with Jim Ellison, Detective/Sentinel. That and the fact that the entire squad thought of him as one of them.

"We includes you, Sandburg. At least this time. We're going on this team building retreat up in the mountains. There we will..." He picked up the brochure the mayor had given him, "'Expand our horizons while increasing our trust and cohesiveness.' Whatever the hell that is supposed to mean."

Blair paled. "Oh. Uh, I think it sounds like one of those 'fear' camps. Where they make you do insane things as a group to build up your trust and confidence. You know, like boot camp?"

The other men in the office exchanged glances and groans.

"Please tell me that this isn't what he said." Jim pleaded.

Simon sighed. "I wish I could, but I think he's right." He, Jim and Joel all had military backgrounds. Rafe, Henri, and Blair, did not; and Joel had been a long time out of the military.

The six men exchanged dismayed looks with one another.

They had been told to pack only what they absolutely needed. Blair opted to bring an extra notebook for his constant and copious notes. For a change, he left his laptop computer at home. Just to be on the safe side. Both Blair and Jim packed the minimum requirement of clothing and sundry items. Since this promised to be a wilderness adventure, they decided to leave their shaving equipment at home. They could manage to go a week unshaven, it left extra room for a few special items that Jim, as a former Army Ranger, had decided they might need more. He also insisted that the special items be on their persons, not in their packs.

They met their companions at the station, where they were to take a bus to their destination. None of them were in the least pleased by the secrecy with which the entire thing had been arranged and was being carried out. Even Blair was nervous and suspicious about it.

"This just doesn't seem right, somehow. I've got this bad feeling about it." He looked worriedly up at his Sentinel. Hoping for reassurance. Reassurance he wasn't going to get.

"I know. Me, too."

In fact the entire contingent of the Major Crimes Division were having the same thoughts. Therefore, it was no surprise when they were hauled deep into the mountains surrounding the city, taking smaller and smaller side roads until it could accurately be described as the middle of nowhere. There, they were deposited by their driver who, as soon as they had debarked, took off without a backwards glance.

There was no camp. They had no supplies except the clothing they had on their backs, as the bus had left with their packs still aboard. The six men stood looking at one another and feeling foolish.

"I hope the mayor is insured." Joel muttered angrily.

"We're about a hundred miles from Cascade." Jim commented. "The last fifty miles were on smaller and smaller side roads. We have no communications, no supplies. With luck, we'll be able to hike out in a week."

"Is that hundred miles by road, or by straight line?" Blair had the courage to ask.

"Road. It took us just over four hours to get here. At sixty miles per hour for the highway, and thirty to forty miles per hour for the larger roads, and twenty to twenty-five miles per hour for the last part, we're between eighty and a hundred and twenty miles from home by road. I wasn't counting that closely."

"That means that if we went in a straight line, we could cut off, what, thirty, forty, miles?" Simon questioned.

"That's providing we don't have any large obstacles. Like gorges and rivers to cross. This is wilderness. Old growth forest. There's no telling what the terrain is around here." Jim was looking at the sky. "There's a storm coming. We need to find some kind of shelter and prepare for it. We may have a couple of hours. Unless you want to try to start to hike out straight through?" He looked at his Captain for the decision. He may have had the most experience, but he wasn't in charge, and he knew it. If asked, he would provide guidance and suggestions, but would not under any circumstances other than complete incompetency try to take over. He had enough respect for his friend and captain to give him all the support he was able, without undermining his authority.

Simon looked at the sky, then his watch. "We need to find water. That's probably our most pressing need. I seem to recall passing over a stream a couple of miles back, so let's head there and try to make camp." With no further discussion, the six men started back down the road they had come up just a short time before.

Simon had remembered well. Four or five miles back they found the stream he remembered. They stood and looked around. The wind had picked up and dark, grey clouds had started moving in. Blair stood by his partner, hand on his back while he looked around.

"See anything we can use for shelter, Jim?" He asked softly, keeping his voice low enough to keep the others from hearing. Jim was looking off into the forest, uphill from their location. He looked at Simon.

"Simon? I'm going to see what I can find over here. I'll be back in a few, OK?" Trying, with his eyes to pass further information.

Simon looked at him closely. Recognized the decision he needed to make and agreed in his support of his man. "Good idea, Jim. The rest of us should try to pick up some firewood, just in case you find us some kind of shelter." He suited actions to words and began picking up deadwood.

Blair looked askance at his partner, who indicated for him to stay behind. Blair reluctantly obeyed. Then he noticed the pine cones littered around one of the trees. He looked closely at the tree itself and realized that it was a Digger Pine. The cones could be used as fuel, and they might also be filled with the little pine nuts for which the native peoples had prized them. He started gathering the cones, pleased to note that the seeds looked plump and promising. At least they now had food, as well as water. Now, if Jim could just find shelter...

It wasn't much. Just a tumbled rock overhang, but with care and planning, they could make it work. He cleared out the debris, extending access another two feet into the cleft in the rocks. Pushing the detrius into a berm surrounding the shelter. It would provide a windbreak, once they settled in. Then he checked the wind direction and prepared a spot for a fire. They had shelter. He could build a fire. There was water nearby, just no way to carry it, unfortunately. That could be a real problem in the coming days. Now, if he could only find them some food, they would be set for this night, at least. He turned to return to the others.

He was surprised to discover the huge pile of pine cones Blair had gathered. He decided to ask. "Sandburg, what's with the pine cones?"

"Food. They've got pine nuts in them. We can break them apart and get to the nuts, then we can burn the cones themselves. Double duty. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of energy to get enough pine nuts to fill you up, so I was going to see about trying to find some edible greens to go with them." He smiled up at the captain.

Simon smiled. If he had to be stranded in the wilderness, he would just as soon have these two with him. "Good job. Go ahead and look for your greens, just don't get out of sight, OK? You get lost and I'll never hear the end of it from Jim."

Blair grimaced at the snipe at his being directionally challenged. "Funny. Yes, dad. I'll stay close." Smirking at the expression of disgust that comment elicited from the larger, older, man.

"You want some help, Hair Boy?" Henri volunteered. He was no outdoorsman, but he could keep track of where he was.

"Sure. Come on." Leading the way up the little stream, falling into professor mode, showing Henri what to look for and why. Just a few hundred feet from the road, they discovered a deep pool. Blair excitedly peered into the depths, pleasantly surprised to see a number of good sized trout in the depths.

"Oh, man. Let's go back to the others with the greens, we can come back here to fish after Jim gets back." And I can make me a fishing spear.

"How are you going to catch fish without hooks and a line?" Henri asked, curious.

"You'll see. C'mon, let's go, before they come looking for us." He turned and headed back down stream to the others.

They arrived simultaneously with Jim, who looked at the stack of nut filled pine cones with a pleased grin. "Good work, Chief." He said, clapping his Guide on the back. Looking up at the others, he informed them of the shelter he had found. "It's going to be crowded with all of us, but that will help us keep warm. I'm not sure how dry we'll stay, but at least it's some shelter." He helped gather up the wood and pine cones they had gathered, Joel spread out his trench coat to use as a sack for the pine cones and greens Blair had gathered, then the two of them carried the makeshift sack to their camp for the night.

Joel volunteered to make the fire, using the driest of the wood splintered down into kindling, along with dry pine needles and duff from the forest floor. His cigar lighter worked beautifully as the igniter. In a very short time he had a merry little blaze going. Not too big, just enough to keep the chill off and provide light through the night.

Meanwhile, Blair had found an aspen grove and cut himself a long, straight, sapling to make into a fishing spear. His little knife was hard pressed to do the job and Jim handed him his boot knife. Smiling at their preparedness. Grateful that their paranoia had been justified, even though they would have been much happier to be proven wrong. Blair quickly stripped the branches from his spear and carved the narrow end into a sharp point. He returned the knife to Jim and decided to wait for him to go with him to the pond, wisely deciding against trying to find it again by himself. Rafe was busy breaking up the pine cones and extracting the seeds, as were Simon and Henri. Joel tended the fire.

"I'm going with Blair to try for some of those fish. We'll be back in a while. Any trouble, yell." The cops were all steaming over having been told to leave their firearms behind. They felt like fools for falling for the whole situation. Simon looked up at Jim.

"How was your paranoia on this, Jim?" He asked softly. Wondering if Jim had been suspicious enough to disobey the orders from the mayor's office.

Jim grinned, pulling out his pistol from under his coat. Joel matched his grin and pulled his gun as well, followed by sheepish grins from Rafe and Henri as they, too pulled out their guns. Simon laughed as he added his pistol to the collection.

"Maybe we should have shot out the tires on the bus?" Then he pulled out his cell phone. "Unfortunately, this isn't much good this far up in the mountains." Laughing as Jim and Joel matched his action with their cell phones.

Blair smiled. "Here." He pulled off his coat and started emptying his pockets. Of them all, he had managed to grab his backpack, as he never went anywhere without it. He had a set of sweats for both himself and Jim. Much to Jim's surprise. "Well, I packed a set of my sweats in your duffel, too. Just in case." The supplies he had amazed the others. Even Jim was impressed. He had a folding camp axe, a sewing kit, a first aid kit, candles, waterproof matches, fishing hooks and line, two hundred feet of parachute cord, scissors, and six space blankets, those thin silvery mylar emergency blankets, which could double as shelter, if needed. He also had two plastic rain ponchos, and four dozen energy bars. Not to mention his ever present Swiss Army Knife.

They were all staring at him. "What?" Blair asked, worried.

"And I thought Jim was paranoid." Simon spoke softly. The others just nodded their awe. Jim chuckled as he started emptying out his own pockets. Another first aid kit, sewing kit, six more space blankets, six clips for his gun, two boxes of cartridges for same, more fishing line and hooks, two pocket hand warmers that he handed to his partner, two more rain ponchos, and a pocket camper's knife with about a dozen uses. Then he pulled out his boot knife, and extra gun.

"I feel so inadequate." Joel said, but he was smiling as he said it. "I guess it pays to be paranoid, sometimes." As he emptied his pockets. Waterproof matches, another plastic rain poncho, a pocket pair of binoculars, a large Swiss Army Knife, a bottle of aspirin, another bottle of antacid tablets, a box of bullets, a penlight, two more space blankets and a collapsible cup.

Simon laughed as he emptied out his own pockets, adding to the pile, another plastic poncho, two more space blankets, four clips for his gun, an extra box of bullets, a Swiss Army Knife, and a dozen chocolate bars.

Henri shook his head as he added his rain poncho, two more space blankets, another Swiss Army Knife, three extra clips for his gun, and two dozen granola bars to the pile.

Rafe blushed as he added the contents of his pockets. Another poncho, four space blankets, a boot knife, six extra clips for his gun, his spare revolver, waterproof matches, six pair of socks, and the one thing no one else had thought to pack, a pair of two liter bota bags, filled with water, and decontamination tablets.

"Hallelujah!" Blair exclaimed. "The one thing we really, really needed and no one else thought to bring. Something to put water in. Bless you Rafe." Blair was bouncing excitedly. "OK." He looked up at the others, "We've got enough supplies to get us out of here, don't you think?" Looking hopefully at Jim and Simon, who both laughed.

"Oh, yeah. We've got enough here to last us a week hiking out of the wilderness, providing we supplement it with what we can find and catch to eat." Simon grinned. He looked at his men, inordinately pleased. "Good job, men. This might turn into a real 'team-building' exercise, after all." Just not what the powers that be had planned.

Jim picked up his fishing line and hooks, casting a glance at his partner, he stood. "Well, what say we go do a little fishing, Chief?" Blair jumped up and grabbed his spear.

"OK." He looked at the others, "We'll be back soon. If you could maybe rinse the greens and shell a bunch of those pine nuts, I've got a recipe for fish that's just perfect for this." Receiving four nods of assent, he turned and followed his partner.

Joel chuckled. "Who would have thought we'd all be as paranoid as Ellison?" Picking up a pine cone and starting work removing the pine nuts from their host.

Simon laughed, "I'm just glad we are." He looked at Rafe and Henri, "I meant it. Good job, men." The two younger detectives flushed with pleasure. Neither man had the military background of the others, nor the eclectic background that made Blair over-prepare for the worst.

Joel added, "Great job on the water, Rafe. I'll bet Jim and Blair never go anywhere without containers to carry water again.

Rafe smiled, shyly. "We'll stay warm, too. We've got twenty-two space blankets, eight rain ponchos, four boxes of bullets, nineteen clips, seven guns...we have almost enough ammunition here for a war. Awed.

"I notice both Hair Boy and Jim remembered to bring first aid kits. Not to mention the sewing kits." Henri added with a laugh.

"We all did well. Between all of us, we have everything we need to get out of this alive. Not to mention three cell phones. If we keep them turned off to conserve the batteries, we'll be able to call for help when we finally get to the highway." Simon told them.

"That's providing whoever did this lets us get to the highway. I kind of suspect that if we keep to the roads, we're going to be walking into a trap. I, for one, vote for going cross country, at least for a while." Joel said.

The others nodded their agreement.

It was nearly dark when Jim and Blair returned with more than a dozen fish. They had cleaned the fish right there at the pond, so as to not attract any unwanted pests to their camp. Blair took all the field greens he had gathered earlier and that Rafe had washed, stuffed the fish with pine nuts and wild onions he had found by the pond, wrapped them securely in the greens, and then in the largest leafed greens he had found. He then placed them on the coals from their fire and heaped more coals on top of them. Thirty minutes later, he pulled them out of the coals to cool. Ten minutes after that, the six men had one of the finest fish dinners of their lives. The fish was moist and flaky, the onions and pine nuts adding a savory counterpoint. Even the greens were sampled and found acceptable. When they had finished eating, the leftover bones were discarded some distance away. They passed around one of the bottles of water, the perfect ending to the meal.

It started raining just as they were spreading out the space blankets. They all huddled together beneath the overhang, sitting on two of the space blankets and pulling three more over them. It was just high enough for them to sit with their backs against the wall, shoulder to shoulder, using one another's body heat to keep warm.

Blair awoke. He was warm and comfortable. He snuggled down into his pillow, which grunted. His eyes sprang open in shock. It was still dark out, and he had to struggle to remember what had happened. He felt a hand on his shoulder and remembered. He carefully lifted his head to look up at the owner of the hand on his shoulder and lap he was using as a pillow. It wasn't Jim. He looked up into a pair of warm brown eyes in a face even darker than the surrounding night.

"Uh, sorry, Joel." He whispered. Joel chuckled.

"You snuggle too hard, Blair. But that's all right. It's stopped raining." He added as an aside.

"Cool. Everyone else still asleep?"

"No." Simon's whisper from the other side of Joel coincided with Jim's from behind Blair.

"Sorry." Blair whispered again. "I didn't mean to wake anybody up."

"You didn't, Chief. I've been awake for a while." Jim replied.

"How come?"

"Thinking. Wondering who set us up and why? What's happening in Cascade that they needed to get all of us out of town?"

"Ouch." Simon replied. "Good question. I wonder if the mayor is involved. He was awful insistent about us going on this trip, and it had to be right now." He looked at Jim. "Do you think you could hike out of here in a couple of days, on your own, and get help?"

Jim pondered the question. "Yeah. I could. But I won't. There's a ridge just north of here. I'll hike up at first light and see about finding a tree to climb. See if I can tell where we are."

"I'll go with you." Blair volunteered.

"That's OK, Chief. You don't have to."

"Yes, I do." Blair's tone brooked no argument.

Simon chuckled softly. "Listen to him, Jim." His tone agreeing with the grad student.

Jim sighed in capitulation. "OK. You can come. Just try not to hurt yourself, OK?"

"Sure. I always try to not hurt myself. It just doesn't always work."

From the tallest tree on the nearby ridge, Jim looked West. He could see where the highway crossed the next ridge over. Checking the bottom of the valley between the two ridges, he didn't see anything especially difficult by way of obstacles.

"Jim?" Blair called from the base of the tree.


"Try your cell phone from up there, why don't you?"

Jim shook his head. Sometimes he could miss the most obvious...

He dialed a number he knew well, one that he hoped no one would think of tapping.

"Hey, Mable."

"Are you boys all right?" Worry in her voice. "Something is very wrong here. The FBI have been here, hinting that you boys were into some kind of drug manufacturing scheme. I told them that the mayor sent all of you on some kind of retreat, but he's denying it."

"Damn. We figured it had to be something like that. We're stranded up here."

"Jim, let me call you back on my cell phone, OK? I have a bad feeling."

"You got it." Jim punched the disconnect button and waited.

His phone rang fifteen minutes later. "Ellison."

"OK. I'm in the van and on my way. Where are you?"

"We're about fifteen miles off of the two, where it crosses one of the ridges, heading east."

"OK. How long will it take you to hike that far?"

"At least all day. Why don't you find a hotel on the highway tonight, and we'll meet you on the ridge tomorrow afternoon. Give us plenty of time to get there."

"All right. Do you want me to call anyone else for you?"

"No. I'll do it. Thanks, Mable."

"No problem. You boys take care, now. You hear?"

Jim smiled, "Yes, ma'am. Any message for Joel?"

"Yes. Next time, listen to me."

"Next time, tell all of us. You should see the stuff we brought on our persons. They stole our packs, but we've got enough stuff to be all right. See you tomorrow."

"All right. See you tomorrow."

Jim punched in the number for the FBI. When a stranger answered, he asked for Agent Fowler, someone he knew well enough to trust, at least a little.


"It's Ellison."

"Where are you? We've got APBs out on all of you. What are you up to?"

"We were set up. We were told by the mayor to go on this 'team-building' trip. We were told to leave our guns at home, get on the bus with minimal luggage. We were driven out into the wilderness and dumped. Without our packs."

"Shit. I'd heard some crazy woman in your forensics department talking about that, but the mayor denied any knowledge of it. Seems we may have a problem with your mayor."

Jim sighed in relief. "You believe me?" Just checking.

"Yeah. I believe you. I can't pull the APB, though. It came from higher up. I'll make some calls and see what I can do. Is there a number where I can reach you?"

"No. I'll have to call you back."

"OK. Call me on my cell, the number is 555-3895. I'll see what I can do about getting the APB lifted."

Jim had been listening to Fowler's heartbeat, judging his veracity. He could sense anger, but no deception.


"Are you guys OK?"

"Yeah, we're fine. Look, do me a favour, would you? Check out my loft, see if it's been burgled, I have a feeling that there was a reason we were told to leave our guns behind."

"You got it. Give me a couple of hours and call me back."

"Thanks. Good luck. Don't take any chances. We don't need you to get hurt, you hear me?"

"Yeah. I hear you. Later."

Jim climbed down. He looked at Blair when he reached the bottom. "We were set up by the mayor. Fowler is checking on some things, Mable will meet us tomorrow. We need to get back and start for the highway."

"Then, let's go."

No one was surprised by the news. They were just grateful that Jim had called for help. He immediately passed the praise where it belonged, on Blair's head. While up the tree, Jim had plotted their course, cross country, to the highway, at least fifteen miles north of them.

They had all worn good, solid footwear, hiking boots or sneakers. Jim set pace by what he figured the least of them could maintain. He kept them at a steady, easy pace with frequent stops for rest, water, and snacks. Since they planned to be out of the wilderness within a day, he encouraged them all to munch on their snack food and drink plenty of water. When the bottles ran low, he would leave them at a rest stop and go off to find water, returning with refilled bottles, using the decontamination tablets freely, just to be sure. They made the first half of the trip in just over four hours, but it had all been downhill. Now the hard part would start, the second half was all uphill. He set off at the same easy pace as before, his only concession being more frequent stops. By late afternoon, he started looking for shelter, finding a good spot, he called a halt. It would have to be a dry camp, as there was no running water nearby. Jim let the others settle down and make camp, while he went hunting.

The camp was set up, everyone relaxing around the fire, when they heard two gunshots in rapid succession. Blair jumped up and peered into the forest, searching in vain for his missing Sentinel. He began to pace nervously, waiting impatiently. No one tried to stop him. Knowing that there was probably no problem, just Jim hunting for their dinner, but not trying to tell the younger man that he was foolish.

He needn't have worried. He spotted Jim coming toward them through the trees, carrying something over his shoulder. Blair looked curiously at the animal. "What is it?"

Jim looked at him. "Take a hike, Chief. I still need to finish skinning it."

Blair paled and turned away. "You didn't answer my question. What is it?"

"A deer. A small one. Enough to feed us tonight and tomorrow morning."

"Oh. OK." Deciding not to press the issue. "I'll, uh, see if I can find some more greens, OK?"

"More of those onions would be good, too."

"Gotcha." Blair headed off to seek the vegetation wanted.

Rafe stood and followed the anthropologist without being told.

"Hey, Blair. Wait up. I'll give you a hand." Jogging to catch up. "Think you can show me what to look for..."

By the time they had returned, their arms full of greens and onions, Jim had set up a spit over the fire and was preparing to suspend their dinner over it. He took the greens and onions, which Rafe and Blair had already washed in a tiny spring they had found, and stuffed the cavity of the carcass. Then, using the animal's own sinews, he tied it onto the spit so that none of the vegetables fell out.

Dinner was delicious. The only thing missing was some salt. Fortunately, the onions added a wonderful, delicate flavour. They gorged themselves and still had plenty of leftovers for the morning. It had already cooled into the mid fifties by the time the sun went down. The lows would end up in the upper thirties to low forties. Plenty cold enough to prevent any spoilage. Jim used some of Blair's parachute cord to suspend the leftover meat from a tree several yards downwind from their camp.

They didn't have the benefit of a rock overhang, but the weather promised to stay clear, meaning that it would get a lot colder. They decided to again sleep close together to maintain warmth. They speculated on what the possible reasons could be for the mayor to have set them up like this.

"The most usual reason is money." Simon pointed out. "Until we find out different, that's what I'm going to assume it is. Besides, why isn't the important thing, right now. Getting back is. I'm hoping to get back in time to be present when whatever is going to happen, happens."

They were all in full agreement with that.

The morning dawned bright and clear. The group decided to eat their meal cold. It was almost as good cold as it had been hot. They supplemented the meat and vegetables with granola bars, at Blair's insistence. Reminding them that they needed more than protein in their diet, or suffer the consequences. It was the idea of what form the consequences would take that convinced them to comply with the youngest member of the group's recommendation.

Jim, once again, took point, leading them unerringly up the side of the ridge toward the highway. Rafe had passed out his extra socks, which were gratefully exchanged for the ones they had been wearing for the past two days. They had waited until they came to a small stream before doing so, washing their feet in the icy water and waiting until they had air-dried before putting on the fresh socks. The simple change boosted their spirits and sent them on their way at a slightly faster clip than before. Jim still kept them at a slow, steady gait, so no one got too tired.

There were sections where they had to be very careful, using the parachute cord to anchor them as they climbed the steep slope. In those instances, Jim would first climb up the section, marking hand and toeholds, Then he would anchor the cord to something solid, like a boulder or a tree, and toss down the cord, after tying loops to use as handholds at intervals along the cord. After the second steep section, every last one of them wished that they had included a pair of gloves in their pockets. The parachute cord was strong and light, but so thin that they ripped up their fingers and palms on it. On the last steep stretch, just before they reached their last stopping place, Joel slipped and nearly fell, his hands severely torn by the rope burns before he caught a toehold in the rock face. He hung there for several minutes, trying to force his hands to unclasp from the cord, blood dripping and staining the rocks.

"Joel? Are you OK?" Blair called up from below. The others were already at the top, watching anxiously.

"I'll be OK. Blair. I've just got to get my fingers to open, then I'll be back on my way." Grimacing in pain, he finally forced his fingers to release the cord. He looked up, trying to chart a path that would give him the best chance of not having to use his hands. There wasn't one. Carefully, he started up again.

"Joel." Jim called from twenty feet up, "Do you want us to pull you up?" He could see the blood even without his enhanced vision.

"No. I got it." And he did. It took him another fifteen minutes to crawl and climb to the top of the slope, but he made it. On his own. Blair scrambled up right behind him, making it look easy.

Jim insisted on taking the time and cleaning and bandaging everyone's injuries. Joel's hands being the worst. He could barely flex his fingers due to the rope burns that had ripped the skin from his hands.

"You're going to need a doctor to check these when we get home, Cap." Jim needlessly pointed out.

"Don't worry, Jim. I can still shoot if I have to." Joel joked over the pain. Finishing with his doctoring, they started up the slope again, fortunately not nearly as steep.

They had repacked their gear so that Blair's backpack held all the spare ammunition. They took turns carrying it, so no one wore any blisters from it. They neared the top of the ridge shortly before noon, and Jim called a halt in a stand of trees, hidden from any possibility of prying eyes. Everyone dropped wearily to the ground, grateful for the shade and gentle breeze. Jim took a drink of water and looked at them.

"We're almost there. The road's about a hundred yards up. I'm going to go check it out." He looked at his superior, questioningly. Simon nodded.

"Go ahead. We'll just sit here and catch our breath." He was inordinately proud of his men, and eternally grateful for Jim's presence. Without him, they would have had to follow the roads back and probably run into a trap. This way, they had cut off at least forty miles of road and more than a week's worth of hiking. Sure, their path had been a lot harder than the roads, but well worth it in terms of time and safety. He was impressed with how well they had all pulled together. A little surprised that even the oldest and most out of shape (or so he had thought) member had been able to keep up with no trouble. It pleased him exceedingly that they had actually managed to turn this into a team-building exercise. He turned to say something to Sandburg, only to realize that he wasn't there.

"Where did Sandburg go?" He asked anxiously.

"He followed Jim." Joel replied.

"Sometimes he's like a puppy with Jim." Rafe noted. "He's amazing."

"How do you mean?" Simon asked, carefully.

"Well, here we are, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. He probably shouldn't have been on this trip, he's not a cop." He paused for a moment to think how to phrase it. "I mean, I know he's studying closed societies and we're just some fancy term paper for him, but the way he follows Jim around, the trouble he gets into...and out of." He added with a grin, "The way he thinks, how he helps all of us." He glanced around at the others, a little uncomfortable with where he was going, "How much Jim's changed. It''s strange. It's almost like they're...I don't know, connected, somehow. Like there's a lot more going on than just observing. Blair's a better cop than most of the newest crop out of the academy. He's the smartest, most resourceful person I've ever met. He follows Jim into anything, no matter how scared he gets. They have probably the best partnership I've ever seen. I just don't understand why he does it. I mean, there has to be an easier way to get those letters after his name, doesn't there?"

Simon and Joel exchanged looks. Joel smiled and shrugged, letting Simon know that it was his problem.

"It has become a partnership, of sorts. Jim trusts Blair. There aren't very many people he does trust to guard his back." He thought to try to decide how to phrase it. "I've even come to think of him as one of us. You're right. He is one of the smartest and most resourceful people I've ever met. He does help all of us." He glanced at Joel, who smiled and nodded, remembering. "He brings a unique point of view that we have all lost, this is all still so new to him, even after more than two years, that he still doesn't have the 'Cop Mentality' when it comes to looking at things. I, for one, welcome it. We've all noticed how his unique perspective makes us stop and look at things from his fresh point of view. Jim does his best to try and protect Blair from the worst of what we as cops see and sometimes have to do." He smiled at his men. "We've all visited the 'Sandburg Zone' and been better for it. Hell, I'll even admit that I've enjoyed a few of my visits there. I wish we could convince him to go through the academy and come to work for us full time. I'd partner him with Ellison in a heartbeat. Problem is, he hates guns. Sure, he's held one a few times, even fired one. He still hates them. He isn't prepared for what might happen on the job. Until he is, he's going to stay an observer." He looked pointedly at his crew. "But. He. Is. Still. A. Member. Of. This. Squad. Do I make myself clear?"

The three part harmony of "Yes, sir's brought a smile to his face. "Now. Where did they get off to?" Turning around and looking upslope for the missing pair.

"You didn't have to come with me, Chief." Jim muttered to his Guide.

"Sure, I did, Jim. You're under a lot of stress here, man. I've noticed how you make sure all the decisions go through Simon, but I think everyone knows that you're in charge. You have the experience, the skills needed to get us all out of this safely. When Joel slipped, I swear I could hear your heart pounding. I know mine was."

Jim blushed. "Yeah, I know. So was everyone else's."

Blair chuckled. "Yeah, well. You're ripe for a zone out, man. You've done a terrific job here, so far. We're getting close to the end and you're up here checking the highway for traps. Prime setting for a zone out, man. You need me here to guard your back. Make sure that if you zone, that you come back. OK? Better yet, hopefully, I can keep you from zoning." Reaching out to touch his Sentinel's back.

Jim smiled, gratefully. "OK." The smile directed at his Guide informing him of his need to have him there. Of his agreement, in principle as well as in fact. They approached the highway by crawling through the underbrush, just in case. They came to a halt at the apex of a curve, able to see for nearly a mile in each direction, the curving road appearing and disappearing behind the mountain.

"OK. Jim, focus on your hearing. Look for anything unusual, like silence. You know, how the birds get quiet when there's someone around? Look for voices, other than our guys, of course."

Jim concentrated. Tuning in on their people, hearing what was being said about them. Smiling about it. Then he filtered out the familiar voices and stretched out his hearing, seeking other signs of human occupation.

"There's a truck coming." He opened his eyes, piggy-backing his sight on the sounds. "Semi." Pointing to the distant speck approaching them. Ten minutes later, the truck and trailer rig passed them. Once it was gone, Jim again reached out his hearing, seeking for any others. Finding none, he stood, pulling his partner up with him. He crossed the road and found another good hiding place for the group.

"I'd like you to stay here, while I go get the others. Will you do that?"

Blair blinked in surprise, Jim was asking him? Not telling, asking. Wow. "Uh, sure, man. Are you OK?" Worried about Jim's attitude.

"Yeah. I'm OK. I just know how good you are at finding trouble. This is a pretty good spot, out of sight, I can still hear the road. I want to get everyone back together where we can watch each other's backs. Can I count on you staying put?"

Blair noticed the strain in his voice. Realizing that Jim took his responsibilities very seriously and that those responsibilities were weighing heavily on him. Here he was with five untrained (at least untrained as far as the former Ranger Captain was concerned) men in a wilderness situation. They had some supplies, and all of them were pretty fit, considering. Blair realized that he was surprised at how well they were all doing. He knew that Jim had been going slow, he figured they were keeping at a pace to match the least in shape of the group, Joel. He found himself surprised to discover that Joel was in much better condition than his heavy frame would indicate. Not once had they had to slow down or stop because Joel was in distress. He didn't know if Joel was really in that good a shape, or if Jim had just managed to match their exertions to Joel's abilities. No matter. What was important was that they were all still together and relatively healthy, in spite of the minor injuries sustained with the parachute cord.

"I will stay put. Just don't hurry and make a mistake. Before you go, check and see if anything is coming, OK?" Jim smiled faintly and followed instructions. They had to wait for another truck and trailer, then, once the road was again clear, Jim dashed back across the highway and down the hill back to the rest of the group.

"Where's Sandburg?" Were the words that greeted him on his return.

"He's fine. Waiting for us by the highway. Once we're all up there, I'm going to make a few more calls, see what's happening." Simon nodded his agreement. The four men stood, stretched their stiffening muscles and followed Jim to the highway. Rafe grabbed Blair's backpack on his way past Jim. Smiling at the older man, who slapped him on the back in a friendly manner as he passed.

They didn't have to wait for any traffic before crossing the highway. Jim had checked carefully for the sound of vehicles on their way up the last slope before the pavement. He led the way across and into the trees, calling out softly for his Guide.

"Right here, Jim." Blair stood. They gathered around and the three cell phones came out.

"Joel, you call Mable, see if you can give her directions. Jim, you call your FBI contact. I'm going to call the station, see if I can find out what's going on there." Simon was back in charge, the way he should be.

"We're at the top of the grade, about five miles west of Vista Point." Jim informed Joel.

"Thanks." He hit the speed dial on his phone. "Hey, baby." His voice dropping down half an octave as he spoke to his wife. Blair wondered if Joel was aware of it? "We made it to the highway. ... We're fine. ... No, no. I just cut my hands on a rope, is all. ... No, we're all just fine, just some rope burns, nothing serious. ... Baby. ... Baby? I'm fine. Honest. ... How are things where you are? ... Any trouble? ... Good. We're about five miles west of Vista Point. On the North side of the highway. ...We'll put a watch out for you. ... No, we're right at the top of the grade. ... Uh huh. ...OK, baby. We'll see you then. Be careful. If you think you're being followed, go on past us. I mean it. You hear me? ... OK, baby. Be safe." He disconnected his phone and looked into the grinning faces around him.


"How long?" Simon asked, shaking his head. Amazed that Joel still sounded like a newlywed when he spoke to his wife, even after all the years they'd been married. Amused that Joel wasn't aware of how he sounded.

"She's at the motel about twenty miles down the hill. East of us. She thought she'd been followed yesterday and went down and stayed at a motel east of here. She'll be on her way back in about half an hour, then, figure another half hour until she gets here, and then we'll be on our way home." The others heaved relieved sighs.

Jim punched re-dial and was soon speaking to Agent Fowler. "Fowler. Yeah, It's Ellison. What did you find out. ... Uh huh. ..." He winced, "How much damage? ... Oh, that's not too bad. ... It has? You sure? ... OK. Sounds good. What about things there? ... Really? ... What did the mayor say to that? ..." He laughed. "Good. No, We'll be back in a couple of days. ... No. We'll get back on our own. Any sign of whoever else is involved? ... You're kidding? ... That's great. ... OK. ... I'll call you. And, thanks." Jim looked up into the anxious faces surrounding him. Well, it sounds pretty good. He checked our residences. Except for Joel's, probably because Mable was there, they've been burgled. They got prints, matched them to some known perps. No serious damage, he's even had the broken windows replaced already, at the mayor's expense. When confronted with the evidence, the mayor broke down and confessed. The APB has been canceled. He offered to come pick us up, but I turned him down."

"Why?" Henri asked.

Jim grimaced. "I still don't quite trust them. Anyway, they've tracked down most of the gang. Seems there's a currency shipment headed through Cascade on it's way to Denver for destruction. They planned on hijacking it, and framing us for it. That's why they wanted us to leave our guns behind. Imagine their surprise at breaking in and not being able to find any weapons." They all joined in the laughter the idea elicited. "Anyway, with the mayor in custody and singing like a diva, naming names, giving out locations, the whole ball of wax, it is now deemed safe for us to go home."

The news was greeted with cheers, except from Blair, who still looked worried.

"What is it, Sandburg?" Simon asked.

"Uh, if they caught the entire gang, who was following Mable?"

His question was met with a heavy silence as they looked at one another, their cheerful mood shattered.

Simon shook his head. "Thank you, Blair. We missed that, entirely." He looked at his men. "I want to set up along the highway, I want Mable's van covered for any contingency." He directed his men to spread out and make sure that no one would be able to sneak up on them. To that end, Jim and Blair were stationed a hundred yards east of the wide spot in the road at the crest of the hill. Just in case.

"She's here" Jim announced to Simon through his cell phone. "There's another car about two miles behind her. If we're quick, they won't realize she stopped and picked us up." He hung up and he and Blair started running, back toward the others.

She knew she was being followed, fortunately, the tail didn't realize the four-sixty engine she had under the hood was high performance. Lousy gas mileage, but powerful and fast. She had been pulling steadily away from them up the entire grade, as she reached the top, she hit the brakes hard, popping open the side door for the men to bail in. She would have laughed at Jim and the way he scooped up his partner and threw him through the door before jumping in himself, but there wasn't time. She was peeling out with Jim just barely hanging on, Simon and Rafe grabbing onto him and dragging him the rest of the way in while Joel slammed the sliding door.

"You boys all right?" Mable asked, already back up to highway speed. Risking a quick glance back at them.

"Yes, Ma'am." Chorused the pile of men still on the floor of the van, Joel, who had been the first one in and who had immediately moved toward the rear to make room for the others reached down to help untangle his friends. Blair was rubbing his shoulder where he had hit against the far side of the van where Jim's toss had landed him. The untangled mass of men found seats around the rear of the van, leaning against the interior walls. Joel moved to the passenger seat up front and patted his wife's shoulder.

"Good job, baby." He glanced back at the others, thinking. "Jim? Why don't you come up here and ride shotgun?" His calm demeanor not giving away the reasoning behind the offer, that Jim was the only one equipped to watch for bad guys and forewarn them of trouble.

"Sure." Jim stood carefully in the speeding van, the slight sway from the speed and road causing him only a little trouble. He slid past Joel and slipped into the front passenger seat. Joel sat with his back to the TommyLift platform that Mable had put in the full up position so they could get in from the side. He exchanged grins with his fellow officers. Simon was on the phone.

"Look, Let me talk to..." He thought a moment. Who could he trust? Just to make sure. "Cassie Wells." He finished the sentence. It was more than a minute before he was connected. "Cassie. Simon Banks. What's going on there?" He listened, nodding. A slow smile building across his face. "That's great. Yeah. We heard.... No. We're all fine, except for some rope burns. Thanks. ... No, that's all right. By the way, is there any word on other members of the gang? ... There are? You're sure?... Great.... No, no. I think we have it handled here. Good work. We'll see you when we get back." He disconnected the phone.

"So, what's the word?" Joel asked anxiously. "Who's following us?"

"Well, the good news, is that Fowler was telling the truth, as far as he knew it. The bad news, is that the people following us are from some tabloid that happened to be going through town and got wind of the story when the APB was put out on us. They had staked out your house, Joel, thinking that Mable would lead them to a story." The relief on the other's faces was comical, even if it could have been so much more serious. "So. Do you want to let them catch us? Or should we lose them?"

"I'd just as soon that you let them 'catch' us and then scare them spitless." Blair mumbled.

"Why?" Henri asked.

"I don't like scum sensational news, whether it's on TV or in print. I guess I'm still a little PO'd over Princess Di. Sorry. Not my call, man." The hurt pushed into the background.

They had all been dismayed over the senseless deaths caused by the media sharks in France. Jim caught Simon's eye and raised an eyebrow in question. Simon started to smile, then chuckle. At Blair's hurt glare, he reached over and patted the smaller man's shoulder.

"No, no, Blair. It's not what you think." He looked at the others, who were watching the interchange, curiously. "I like Sandburg's idea. Let's give them a story they won't forget." The others started turning the idea over in their minds, the grins and nods indicating their agreement.

Joel had dug the maps out from under the seat and he and Jim plotted on the perfect site to confront their tail. Jim moved to the rear with the others, He had checked on the car behind them, and realized that their tail was falling further behind. Even with hand controls, Mable was an outstanding driver, knowing to downshift into a turn and accelerate out of it. Maintaining perfect control of her one-ton dual-axle van. He pointed out the spot that he had chosen as the perfect place for a trap.

It was a runaway truck turnout at the base of the mountain. There was a crossroads just past the turnout, with a four way stop. Mable pulled sharply to the side, stopping quickly and releasing the sliding door. The five policemen bailed out and took up their positions. Blair moved to the front seat where Mable handed him her video camera.

"Be a good boy, Blair and get some good pictures for me, would you?" She asked sweetly. Blair just grinned and climbed out, crossing the highway for the best view of the situation.

Obviously, the reporters thought they had lost the subject of their pursuit. They came around the curve and nearly ran off the road trying to stop. Leaving their car in the middle of the highway, they scrambled out and descended on the van. They stuck a microphone in Mable's face and shouted questions at her. Unconcerned with why she might have stopped. The reporters had obviously not ever gotten the up-to-date information on the incident. They were still working under the misconception that the APB was still in effect. The sudden appearance of five, large, strong, burly, armed men had the desired effect. The man with the microphone squeaked in terror, his partner with the still camera turning to see what had caused the odd look on his buddy's face came camera-lens to pistol-barrel with one of the biggest, baddest, blackest, men he had ever seen. The man had to be six foot seven or so, unshaven, jeans and sweater much the worse for wear, behind the behemoth was another one, slightly smaller, white, blue eyes that seemed to look right through him, gun pointed at his head, an expression the photographer could only describe as unholy glee, or extreme anger, perhaps both. He dropped the camera and looked, making sure of the accuracy of his camera. He started to shake. He looked at his partner and saw what he figured was a mirror image of his own expression. Then he saw the others. Any one of them was capable of breaking the both of them into pieces. They were surrounded, nowhere to run, no place to hide. All they could think of was that the FBI had put an APB out on these men, and they had been foolish enough to try and find them. Now that they had, they had no idea what to do about it.

The five cops never said a word. Not one. They just pointed their guns and glared. Then they looked down in shock as both men voided on themselves in their fear. As one, the five cops withdrew their weapons and stepped back, their expressions softening, just a bit. The big blue-eyed one smirked. Then one of the others smiled, then the woman driving the van laughed and spoke.

"Boys, if you want to chase cops and their families, I suggest you get yourselves a really big dose of courage, first. Better yet, instead of shoving microphones and cameras in people's faces and screaming at them, you should learn to make a phone call and ask politely for an appointment. If you think you are doing the job of tracking down dangerous criminals, you need to get your facts straight. The APB was called off yesterday, after the FBI arrested the mayor for collusion and conspiracy. While you were chasing me, you let the real story get away." She looked across the road at Blair who was still filming. "You get all that, sweetie?" She called to him.

"Yes, Ma'am." Blair called back with an enormous grin. Still filming. The cops, at a signal from Simon, stood down, putting their guns away. They opened a path for the pair to their car. Jim bent down and picked up the dropped camera and offered it back to the photographer, who shook his head, refusing to get close enough to the still dangerous looking man to retrieve his property. None of the policemen spoke, still remaining perfectly silent, their actions cued by eye movements and small gestures. Simon pointed at their car, indicating that they could go. They scuttled to the car, climbing in. Grimacing as they sat, but still too frightened to do anything about it. Jim stepped up to the still open car window and again offered the camera. The photographer looked from the camera to the huge man and back, debating with himself whether it was worth getting that close to the man, trembling.

Blair crossed to the others, filming the interplay between Jim and the photographer. Wondering why the man didn't take his obviously expensive piece of equipment. The photographer cast a quick glance at Blair, wondering at this so much smaller man and his place with this most intimidating group of men he had ever had the misfortune of experiencing.

"Take your camera, man." Blair told the photographer. "At least you didn't chase us into an accident." Then he smirked, seeing as how both of them had had an accident of their own making. The photographer gingerly accepted the return of his camera. Gathering up his courage, he finally asked, "Why?"

Joel answered. "We don't like tabloid scum. You staked out my home. You frightened my wife. You chased her across the mountains. You followed her. You stopped and yelled and screamed at her, trying to intimidate her. You had no consideration for anyone. You could have caused an accident, and you wouldn't have cared. When you caught up with her, you didn't ask if anything was wrong, you shouted questions so fast that even if she wanted to answer them, she wouldn't have been able to. You and your kind are a blot on honest journalism, and we decided that we weren't going to play your game. You accosted the wife of a police detective and you got a whole lot less than you deserved." His voice was colder than the arctic wind that brought the snow in January. No warmth or inflection.

Simon joined in, "If we hadn't found out who you were, we'd probably have just shot you for suspicion of attempted kidnapping, murder, robbery, something like that. No one in their right mind chases a cop's wife. Especially when her husband's squad is in danger. You two have to be real idiots to have tried this. Now, I suggest that you go back to wherever your home is and take some lessons on the right way to approach people. Next time you might not be so lucky." He stepped back, his men moving with him as a single unit, giving the reporters tacit permission to leave. They didn't have to be told twice. They started their car and floored it, running the stop sign and broad siding a pickup truck in the middle of the intersection. The five police officers dropped their eyes and shook their heads in disbelief.

Blair had caught the entire thing on tape. Jim pulled out his phone and tossed it to Blair, "Call 911, Chief. Get the highway patrol." Then he rushed to the accident, checking on injuries. The elderly man in the pickup was unconscious, blood dripping down his face from a cut on his forehead. Jim checked vitals, finding them to be acceptable under the circumstances. He then checked out the two reporters, also unconscious. He then checked the vehicles to decide whether it was serious enough to move the victims. Deciding that they were in no danger from fire, he let them be.

"Tell them that there are three unconscious victims, Chief." Jim called out. Meanwhile, the others were helping Joel get out his road hazard kit and set flares around the curves to alert any approaching traffic.

"Simon?" Blair whispered while they waited for Emergency Services and the Highway Patrol.


"Are we going to get into trouble for this?" Worried blue eyes looking up into his face.

Simon sighed. "Maybe. Depends on whether they want that tape plastered all over the evening news. We could insist that they play the entire tape, not just the parts they want to sensationalize." He patted Blair's shoulder, reassuringly. "Don't worry. It's not your responsibility."

"Maybe not, but it was my idea."

The photographer was the first one to regain consciousness. He was surprised to find the same five cops still there. If it had been him, he'd have high-tailed it out of there. The big, blue-eyed one was crouched in his doorway, gently checking out his injuries.

"Don't try to move. Can you talk?"

"Uh, yeah." Surprised at not being afraid of this man, now. It was like he was a different person.

"Good. You remember what happened?" Not looking in his eyes, focused on checking out his injuries.

He sucked in a gasp as the large, gentle hands carefully probed his ribs. "Yeah. My idiot partner floored it through the stop sign and hit a truck. Is the guy in the truck OK?"

Jim was impressed with the man's concern. "He's pretty lucky. You hadn't picked up enough speed to do a great deal of damage. He's unconscious, hit his head on the window and cut it. Probably a concussion. His entire left side is bruised, but I don't think anything's broken. You, on the other hand, have a broken leg and your hips and ribs took a pretty hefty beating from your seat belt. Your partner there, has a broken arm, a concussion and a broken ankle. Not bad, considering."

The photographer sighed with relief. "I'm sorry about our behavior back there. You were absolutely right. You could have killed us and gotten off. Why didn't you?"

"Because we're sworn to protect. You happened to choose the wrong place, the wrong time, and the wrong lady to try to intimidate. I'm sure Mable could have handled you herself, once we found out you weren't a part of the scheme to get us all killed. But the idea of your tactics rankled. Sorry."

He decided the big guy was apologizing for scaring the shit out of them. Literally. He chuckled, then gasped in pain. "Apology accepted. Providing you forgive us for what we did."

"That became moot when you went from perp to victims. It will all depend on what you guys decide to do about it."

He knew what wasn't being said. If they tried to drag them into it, that video would be all over the news and they'd never work again. The accident was their fault. Best to take it and go on with their lives.

"I'll talk to Ken. It was our fault, after all." He closed his eyes, the shock beginning to wear off and the pain was getting worse.

"You could blame us for scaring you."

"No. That was self inflicted. You were right. We are lucky you didn't shoot us. Most people would have without a second thought. Especially since Paris. That brought it all out for the world to condemn. I'm surprised there haven't been any lynch mobs after us. It's time to change our way of doing business. Thanks for the wake-up call."

"I'm sorry you got hurt."

"You didn't do anything but defend yourselves. It was a stupid thing to do. If you had been crooks, you'd have killed us outright. If you had been bad cops, ditto. But you were good cops trying to make a point. I got the message, and I'll make sure Ken gets it, too." He looked up at the man he'd been so terrified of only a short time earlier. "You even gave me back my camera, complete with film." Wonder in his voice, the words of a man who had lost more than one roll of film or camera in his career to irate victims of his trade.

"Of course. It was yours." Was the puzzled response of the honest man.

It was nearly an hour before the emergency vehicles arrived. By the time they got there, Jim and Blair's little first aid kits were sadly depleted, and Mable's big first aid kit had a pretty big dent in its contents. All three accident victims had regained consciousness. Ken was berating himself over the crash. His partner, Gary had talked to him and convinced him to leave well enough alone. There had been no reason for them to have run the stop sign except their own embarrassment. Gary told Ken that they had caused enough trouble for one day and to just let it go. Ken agreed.

Jim had splinted the broken bones to immobilize them, bandaged the cuts and kept the injured from trying to move. Joel had called the truck driver's home to report the accident, reassuring the man's wife that he would be all right. When the paramedics arrived, they had only to run their vital signs tests, immobilize and transport. If they had waited for them to arrive it was entirely possible that any of the victims might have bled to death.

The Highway Patrol took statements, Ken telling them that he had stopped back from the stop sign and then taken off too fast and hit the pickup. He was corroborated by the statements of the seven occupants of the van. One of the paramedics complimented Jim on his actions, to which Jim responded with a faint grin. It was another hour before they could finally head home.

It was late afternoon and clouds were gathering for another rain storm. Mable took them all home with her. She was tired and she knew that they all had to be exhausted. They had plenty of space, even if they did have to double up in rooms. Jim and Blair shared Cecilia's room, Henri and Rafe shared J's room and Simon had a room to himself. Rafe got the top bunk. Both beds in Cecilia's room were on the floor. Fortunately, Cecilia's tastes ran to classic colours and designs rather than frills and lace. Much to Jim's relief, at least. Blair was so tired, that all he wanted was a hot shower, a shave and bed. The other's weren't far behind him.

Mable fussed around in her kitchen while the men slept. It was nearly nine p.m. when Jim came shuffling downstairs, wearing his clean sweats, eternally grateful for Blair's foresight.

"You've been busy." He said softly, so as to not startle her.

She turned with a big smile. "How are you feeling? Better?"

"Oh, yeah. After the shower and shave I felt good. Now that I've had a little sleep, I could probably do it all over again; but I'd rather not." He smiled.

She laughed. "I understand. There's a roast in the oven, along with baked potatoes, butter, sour cream, chives, salad, and your choice of drinks. Help yourself." She was finishing folding the freshly cleaned clothes they had been wearing for the past two and a half days.

"I'll just take these up, first. I'm sure that they'd rather have clean clothes when they wake up." He smiled.

"None of you boys have anything I haven't seen before, but I guess that flaunting it is a bit out of character for you all. See if anyone looks like they might wake up, if they do, tell them to come and eat."

"Yes, ma'am."

The others were still sleeping soundly, except for Simon, who was showing signs of waking up. Jim waited until he did.

"What's wrong?" Were Simon's first words upon seeing him.

"Nothing. Just waiting for you to wake up. Mable has dinner waiting. She sent me with your clean clothes." He indicated the pile on the dresser. "I'm going to go check on the others and I'll meet you downstairs."

He watched Henri and Rafe sleep for a few minutes, tuning in on their heartbeats and breathing, just making sure. Then he went back to Cecilia's room and watched Blair sleep. He was still there half an hour later when Simon came looking for him.

"Jim?" He whispered. "Jim? You didn't go and zone on me here, did you?" No reaction. "Jim?" Gently grasping his detective by the shoulders, feeling the tension in the immobile body. "Come on, Jim. Come back. It's OK. Jim? Jim?" Rubbing the shoulders. Speaking softly to keep from disturbing the sleeping Guide. "Jim, it's OK. Come on, Jim." Shaking the oblivious man.

Blair abruptly sat up staring frantically around the strange room, trying to focus, spotting his Sentinel and Simon. "What's wrong?" Worried, swinging out of bed and falling to his knees before his Blessed Protector. "Jim. Jim! Come on, man. Snap out of it. Jim!"

The fear and worry in Blair's voice broke through his trance. He took a deep breath and blinked, focusing on the two men looking worriedly at him. "I zoned." Unsure.

"Yeah, man. What on?" Blair was still half asleep.

"Oh. You're catching a cold, Chief. You're a little congested. I was listening to you breathe...and I zoned on it."

Blair exchanged worried looks with Simon. "Uh, OK. Stress." Blair decided. "It's a residual from the stress of the last few days. It'll be all right." He was holding his friend by the hands, massaging the backs of Jim's hands, making contact, soothing, comforting. "It's OK, Jim. I'll be fine. I'll make some herbal tea and I'll be fine in a day or so. It's OK, Jim." Simon massaged Jim's shoulders and neck, working the tension from his best detective. Staying quiet while Blair worked his magic. Jim finally relaxed and sighed. Straightening up, he looked ruefully at his two friends. "Sorry. I guess I'm still tired. I should probably just go back to bed and get some more sleep."

"Oh, no you don't. Mable told me to make sure you came down and ate something, and I agree. After you stuff yourself, you can come back and sleep as late as you want to tomorrow. None of us will be in any shape for at least another day. So, take advantage of the respite while you can."

"Yes, sir.... And, thanks." Blair pulled him to his feet, maintaining contact, making sure he was all right. Jim cocked his head. "Henri and Rafe are awake. I'll let you tell them to come and eat." He followed his Guide downstairs, where Joel and Mable were waiting for them.

They were all still suffering the aftereffects of their ordeal, brief as it may have been. The fear and adrenaline from more than two days of worry had caught them all up and left them exhausted. After they ate they all staggered back to bed to sleep off the rest of their funk.

It was late the following afternoon before any of the men stirred. Mable was a little surprised when Blair was the first one down. He was still a little subdued.

"What would you like, Blair? Breakfast, lunch, or dinner?"

"What time is it?" Blair asked, yawning, "'scuse me."

"It's nearly four in the afternoon. You're the first one up. So, what would you like?"

Blair thought about it. "Coffee? Maybe some toast. I'm not really hungry. Definitely coffee." He loved her laugh. He smiled as he thought about how much her daughter sounded like her. He mentioned it. "You know, Cecilia laughs just like you."

"I know. And J sounds just like Joel. Our children are really a lot like their parents. How is the email going with Cecilia?"

Blair blushed. "Good. We talk a lot about school, term papers, teachers, stuff like that. It's fun, but I wish she were closer. I like talking to her." He glanced around, "You should see my phone bill. It's getting almost out of control. When I run out of money, I email more. She's just so much fun to talk to, to be with." He looked at Cecilia's mother and smiled. "You were right. Being friends is much more important." He blushed, but didn't say anything more.

"So, you've stopped dating?" Just a wee bit suspicious.

"Uh, no. Not quite. It's just..." He looked at her helplessly. "I'd rather be with a friend than try to, well, you know." Embarrassed. She reached out and took his hand.

"Yes, dear. I do know. Don't worry. You're just growing up." She laughed at his shocked expression. "I said you were growing up. Maturing. Just don't ever lose your zest for life. It's your most endearing quality." She pulled him to her and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

He returned the hug, fiercely. "Thank you. For everything."

"You're welcome, dear." She released him. "Coffee's already made. I'll fix your toast. Cinnamon and sugar?"

"Oh, yes, please."

Blair ate and then visited for a while, but within a couple of hours, he was struggling to stay awake and she sent him back to bed. The others slept through the night.

It was barely light, when Jim finally awoke. He blinked and stretched until his joints popped. He suspected from the way his body felt that he'd slept the clock around. He felt pretty good. He glanced over at Blair, who was snuggled under his covers, completely covered. He smiled as he listened to his Guide's heart and breathing, satisfied that the bit of congestion was gone. He extended his hearing to check on the other members of his tribe. Finding them all still sleeping peacefully. Except...He immediately turned down his hearing. No need to go there. He smiled. Happy for his friends. He lay quietly, contemplating the past few days, realizing that they really had been team-building. Amused that the excuse to get rid of them had backfired and actually turned into an experience that was very worthwhile.

It was almost nine, before everyone woke up. They dressed and staggered downstairs, shocked to learn that they had slept through the entire previous day, ravenous from their missed meals. Mable made waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, real maple syrup, coffee and orange juice. She loved the work, the mess, even the cleanup. Thrilled with the company and being able to take care of them all. In her element. When they were finished, she shooed them out of her kitchen so she could clean up, refusing any and all offers of assistance. Instead, she told them to get ready for work, because, as soon as she was finished, she'd be driving them to the station where they had a great deal of paperwork to do. They groaned at the prospect. Simon was adamant, however, insisting they get the paperwork done as soon as possible and get back to work.

Their arrival at the station was a cause celebre'. Everyone talking and asking how they were. Telling them the news about the mayor and the FBI. Welcoming them back as conquering heroes, just for having survived. One thing they hadn't known was that the bad guys had been waiting for them to come back out on the side roads. The FBI had gone in and caught them by surprise from behind, there were a few casualties, but nothing outrageous. It took them almost half an hour, just getting upstairs to their office. Once there, the parade of well-wishers continued, much to their chagrin. Finally, Simon chased the visitors out with the ultimatum that if they stayed, they could help type up the reports. It suddenly got very peaceful.

"OK, men." Simon announced. "Each of you gets to write up your own version of what happened this week. No exchanging of notes or ideas. I want each of you to do your own..."

"Simon, when did you start taking lessons on how to be a professor?" Blair asked with a grin.

"Funny, Sandburg. This includes you. This is an essay question. I want your ideas on what we did wrong, and what we did right. I want your reports on my desk before you go home." He turned and went back to his office to follow his own instructions.

Simon read the reports with great interest. Lessons learned: Don't trust surprise instructions. Check everything out, assignments from odd sources, strange, sudden classes. The guys they worked with were trustworthy. If it came from one of them, it was good. He was surprised by how much Blair figured in the reports of Henri and Rafe, since they weren't in on the real reason Blair was there. He had been accepted as part of the team. Each and every report reflected the fact that they were a team. A special entity unto themselves. Colleagues, co-workers, friends. It was a good report. One he would happily forward up the chain. Not necessarily the route he would take, but one that had actually given what was promised. His team was better for their ordeal. Closer, more confident, more trusting of one another. No petty jealousies, no egos or tempers. The ability to recognize the best choice and follow, whether it was the Captain, one of the detectives, or their long-haired Anthropology Graduate Student.

He smiled as he closed the folder. Looking out over his crew from his office, he realized that he had somehow managed to build possibly the best team of detectives in the state, if not the country. Well, he hadn't built it. They had built themselves, with, maybe, just a little guidance from him. And a lot from that crazy, annoying, kid who wasn't even a cop. The one who reminded them of their humanity on a regular basis. The one who Guided the Sentinel hidden in their midst, and the rest of them, as well.

The End

Wow. This so much did not go where I thought it was going. Got pretty smarmy there at the end. Oh, well. It's a lot longer than I thought it was going to be, as well. Let me know if you like it.

It's raining again. Time to settle down and write faster. J R.I.EATON

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